Libyan deal on course, but who is on board?

Abdallah Schleifer
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

Last week, representatives of the internationally-recognized Libyan government in Tobruk, and the General National Congress (GNC) - the Islamist-dominated rival authority in Tripoli - signed a U.N.-brokered agreement to form a unity government, which was quickly endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. It is the fruit of nearly a year of sporadic negotiations - a process whose flaws are reflected in the document.

The mediation focused on rival parties and movements, and ignored the tribes that remain central to whatever is still stable in day-to-day life, and are as much a factor as the political movements in the ongoing strife that has characterized Libya since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi.

Thus the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Islamist groups that dominate the GNC could only have seized Tripoli and established a rival government after losing elections because they had the support of Misrata tribal militias traditionally opposed to those in Zintan, which supported the legitimate government and subsequently undertook much of the fighting on its behalf, in particular in Tripoli.

Most political figures are grudgingly going along with the deal because of the obvious widespread yearning among Libyans for peace.

Abdallah Schleifer

Mutual opposition

The speakers of the rival parliaments announced their opposition to the deal as soon as it was announced. Both men are considered hardliners within their respective camps. GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain has links to the most extremist elements among the Islamist alliances concentrated in Tripoli.

Agila Saleh, head of the legitimate parliament - the House of Representatives (HOR) - has close ties with Libyan army commander in chief General Khalifa Haftar, who is ferociously opposed to all forms of Islamist politics. The two men, at opposite extremes of Libyan politics, actually met together to express their opposition to the deal.

Their refusal was dressed in a nationalist or even patriotic appeal against a unity government in all its details and choice of leadership imposed by an outside force. Instead, they offered the 1951 constitution, but with a ceremonial president instead of a constitutional monarchy. This counter-proposal is not going anywhere in Libya, but it did take the wind out of a growing demand to restore the 1951 constitution in its original form.

Life support

Why then has the unity deal not crashed? Because rival Misrata and Zintan militias had already agreed to a ceasefire, and because the strong Muslim Brotherhood faction within the GNC leadership secured from the U.N. mediator a State Council drawn entirely from the GNC to serve as an advisory body to the HOR.

The unity deal recognized the HOR as the sole legislative authority, but there is a clause buried in it suggesting that in certain types of legislation, the State Council shall express a binding opinion to the unity government, which is otherwise dominated by the HOR.

The deal has not crashed also because of the growing strength in Libya of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The HOR has been asking for the past year that the U.N. Security Council lift the U.N. arms embargo so it can secure heavy weaponry to seriously move against ISIS.

The United States and UK refused, saying they will only do so when there is a unity government. As such, ISIS has been relatively unchallenged as it expands in Libya. So in recent months, London and Washington have been increasing pressure on both sides to sign a unity deal, threatening political isolation for whoever obstructs it, and promising financial and military aid to any unity government that emerges from the U.N.-brokered talks.

Perhaps most important of all, most political figures - particularly those identified with the HOR - are grudgingly going along with the deal because of the obvious widespread yearning among Libyans for peace.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and distinguished visiting professor of political mass media at Future University in Egypt. He is also professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending